Joe Biden’s norm-busting presidency suggests the depressing conclusion that every future executive is destined to overreach.
Consider the trend over the last 12 years. Biden’s old boss, Barack Obama, told DREAMers he couldn’t just “waive away the law Congress put in place,” because he was, “not a king,” and then he proceeded to do just that. He said of Congress, “Where they won’t act, I will,” and warned that he had a pen and a phone. This led to Donald Trump, who (among other things) persuaded “constitutional conservatives” and Freedom Caucus members to support his bogus “emergency” order on the border wall, which amounted to an end-run around Congress.
And now, Biden (you know, the guy elected to restore norms post-Trump) is following suit with his own overreach: a unilateral evictions moratorium (which the Supreme Court promptly rejected) and a sweeping new vaccination mandate.
That is three presidents in a row (four, if you count George W. Bush signing a campaign finance law he thought was unconstitutional). In the words of the Good Book: “How then can any of us be saved?”
I know what you’re thinking: Trump’s behavior was qualitatively and quantitatively more authoritarian than the rest. That may be true, but as the old joke goes, “We’ve already established what you are, now we’re just haggling about the price.” For those of us concerned about upholding the constitution and liberal democratic norms, Biden’s refusal to reverse this trend does not engender much confidence about the future.
The truth is, this overreach was a long time coming. Modern technology (nuclear weapons, TV cameras, etc.) has conspired to make the president more powerful (something we’ve lamented at least since Richard Nixon), even as Congress has insanely ceded more and more of its governing and oversight authority to the executive branch and its various and sundry bureaucratic agencies, like OSHA (thanks again, Nixon!). It was predictable that future presidents would continue to push the envelope.
The real problem, though, is apathy. Almost nobody cares. A president’s backers aren’t about to let niceties stymie their agenda, and there isn’t really a constituency for people who consistently prioritize process over points on the scoreboard. This is true even when the process is something as fundamental as a peaceful transfer of power.
Although the Jan. 6 insurrection was horrific, Democrats shouldn’t assume that moral outrage over that event will help them electorally in 2022 or 2024. People who pay attention to politics have already factored it in, and people who don’t are more concerned about how something directly benefits them—not some esoteric discussion about “norms” or “democracy.” That’s why it was Trump’s mishandling of COVID-19—not all the other dangerous and chaotic stuff Trump said or did—that finally imploded his presidency.
As for Biden, the same principle holds true. Like Obama, he can do things that he previously said were beyond his constitutional power, and then suffer no consequences. The Supreme Court seems to be the only mechanism for sometimes reining in executive authority. But there is little to deter a president from trying to get away with as much as possible for as long as possible. And even when this happens, a president is more likely to be rewarded for being “caught trying” to advance his tribe’s interests than to be shamed for being rebuked by the court.
As of now, there is a Quinnipiac poll that suggests a majority of Americans oppose Biden’s vaccination mandate, while other polls show the exact opposite.
None of it matters, since the number of votes that will be swayed either way is about as likely to be dispositive as whether you prefer chicken salad to tuna. For most Americans, the definition of executive overreach seems to be something we complain to the refs about when the other team is winning.
Which reminds me of sports fans. The problem is that in the context of politics, democracy is the game, and losing it is unthinkable. We aren’t sports fans, but citizens. And we’re not talking about losing a pennant but the American way. Yet, the system that guarantees our freedom has few truly passionate boosters.
When it comes to preserving the institutions of liberal democracy—regardless of who’s in the White House—there just isn’t a huge fanbase for that. If we want to keep this game going for another generation, that is going to have to change.